Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood
With the operating system proving viable on the renderfarm side of production and improvements being made on the graphics workstation side, the stage was set for the earthquake that would shape the VFX industry's tidal force: the VES 2000 Linux Summit. The Visual Effects Society (VES) is the professional member organization for the VFX industry. That summer, 45 representatives from 24 effects companies met in Santa Barbara, California to talk about the need to move away from SGI IRIX and into Linux. The event, organized by the VFX Society's Technology Chair Ray Feeney and Kate Swanborge of DreamWorks, began the process of thawing the usually frozen communications between studios. Stress was placed on the need for third-party applications to be ported. At the time, only five of the more than 20 standard graphics packages used by the industry had been ported to Linux. And worse, application vendors felt that Linux was not the operating system being used by the industry.
Most studios began porting their own in house software over to Linux on their own. Meanwhile, the VES invited software vendors into workshops to discuss the need for ports of their applications. By moving in unison, the VES membership felt they could apply enough pressure on the vendors to get applications ported quickly.
Some applications were already available. Dana Batali, Pixar's director of RenderMan product development, said that they actually had the PRMan renderer available on Linux for a couple of years. SideFX's Houdini port was the first publicly announced product. The pressure applied by the society worked. By the time SIGGRAPH 2001 rolled around in August 2001, ported applications included Alias|Wavefront's complete Maya modeling and rendering toolset (see "GFX: Alias|Wavefront Maya 4", October 2001 issue of LJ), Avid's Softimage XSI image compositor, Kaydara's Filmbox content authoring package, Silicon Grail's RAYZ compositor and Nothing Real's compositor, Shake.
The VFX industry's migration to Linux exposes some interesting interactions that open-source advocates might not have noticed previously. For example, the issue of cost isn't necessarily important when compared to Microsoft products, and it also isn't a factor when considered without the underlying commodity hardware.
Toronto-based Axyz Animation did much of the early adopter testing for SideFX's Houdini on Linux. John Coldrick, senior animator of Axyz, which has already replaced all of their workstations with Linux-based PCs, says the migration was a cost issue when coming from IRIX, but a technology issue when coming from NT:
[Linux] doesn't offer more than IRIX except it's substantially less expensive. But it is the scalability on Linux that is phenomenal. If you start with eight workstations with NT you're fine, but if you have to balloon up to 70 or 100 you run into some major problems. You do that with Linux with no problems.
Cost wasn't the most important issue for Pixar either. "Most people tend to focus on cost" when it comes to migration issues, says Pixar's Vice President of Technology, Darwin Peachey:
But cost isn't the most important thing at these price levels. The most important thing is to look at what is the best performing hardware. Right now that's Intel-based workstations, with NVIDIA or ATI equipped graphics solutions. These have now eclipsed traditional RISC workstations (such as SGIs) in terms of graphics and CPU performance. Quite apart from price/performance, if you look at absolute performance, it appears that this is the way the industry has to go.
DreamWorks Animation Head of Technology Ed Leonard says that, these days, computing costs have to be recouped with each film:
Historically we purchased a large amount of SGIs. Those were amortized over several films. You'd want to get five years out of some of that hardware due to the expense of that investment. With the Intel/Linux strategy today, we're moving toward what we refer to as disposable computing. Film productions are generally two years long, and during that time the technology takes several steps ahead. We normally anticipate to recoup a large portion of our hardware costs with every production. So with each new movie, we go out and purchase a new renderfarm.
But it was SideFX's Salvini who put it most bluntly: "It's one thing to have your product run on Linux, but so what if you save $200 on the OS and you need a $5,000 graphics card?"
The use of commodity components is allowing the industry to remove their dependency on SGI, a company with an expensive, specialized hardware and a questionable future. And, Peachey adds, there are only two ways to go with the Intel solution: Microsoft NT or Linux. Feeney says NT turned out to be both a technical problem as well as a political one.